The incident

At 2350 on 26 September 2017, Marbella departed Hong Kong for Tarahan Coal Terminal in Indonesia. The following day, the master instructed the second mate to amend the route in order to comply with the charterers’ suggested route. At 0000 on 28 September 2017, the second mate arrived on the bridge for his navigational watch.

At the time, Marbella was making good a course of 205°. The speed was 11.7 knots. The second mate recalled that he did not see North Reef on the ECDIS and he therefore monitored traffic on the radar.

At 0145, he changed the course to starboard to pass a group of fishing vessels. He reported that while on this course, he saw lights ahead flashing. He judged them for fishing nets signal and set the course to port to pass between the flashing lights. At 0327, Marbella shuddered to a complete stop as she grounded on North Reef in position 17° 06.80ʹ N 111° 30.62ʹ E.

No injuries and pollution were reported, but the vessel sustained structural damages in way of her double bottom tanks and bottom shell plating.

Immediate Safety Factor

The Marine Safety Investigation Unit (MSIU) concluded that, whilst steering a course to clear fishing vessels, Marbella navigated into shallow waters and ran aground on North Reef, Paracel Islands.


  1. The bridge was solely manned by one person;
  2. The absence of a dedicated look-out at night meant a missing a safety barrier for one-person error;
  3. ‘No-go’ area/limiting danger lines were created around the reef or its position disclosed in the written voyage plan;
  4. It appears likely that on the changeover of the route at sea, the test route was inadvertently clicked and uploaded on the ECDIS;
  5. ENCs were not checked for visual verification and the potential danger of sailing in the close proximity of the reef was not recognised;
  6. The master, who had indeed authorised changes in the original plan, was not involved in its activation on the ECDIS;
  7. It is plausible that directional similarity of the route with the original and charterers route on this leg of the passage may not have been easily discernible and the erroneous route displayed on the ECDIS was not detected by the bridge team;
  8. It is possible that the scale was not optimised and the reef was not viewable on the ECDIS displaying the ENC;
  9. It would appear that although the ECDIS was the primary means of navigation, its innumerable functions were not used to their full potential;
  10. The OOW reportedly sighted flashing lights ahead, which were mistaken for fishing nets signal;
  11. Since a landfall was not anticipated, it was unlikely that the OOW regarded the randomly reflected radar signals as coming from the reef and at no time considered the situation a risk to safe navigation;
  12. With no advance warning from the ECDIS and no look-out on the bridge, the OOW’s situational awareness was compromised as the vessel drew closer to the reef.
  13. The use of alcohol, drugs and fatigue was not considered to be a contributing factor to this accident;
  14. It remains unclear, however, to the safety investigation as to why the route was deactivated and activated during the chief mate and third mate’s navigational watch.


In view of the conclusions reached and taking into consideration the safety actions taken during the course of the safety investigation, Transport Malta advises TMS Bulkers Limited to:

  • Review and include in the SMS a detailed and comprehensive procedure on implementing changes to the approved passage plan at sea and activating on the ECDIS;
  • Ensure that all crewmembers are thoroughly familiar with safe navigational procedures including posting of a look-outs at sea.

Explore more by reading the full report: